A group of 45 national and regional tourist guides arrived in Athy on Thursday to visit the local Heritage Centre and I took the opportunity of briefly outlining the town’s history to them. Their interest in the Town Hall, that monumental public building dividing the town squares, was a pleasant surprise and made me appreciate yet again the public support which saved the building from destruction in the early 1970s.
Denis Cogan, the former county architect for Kildare, writing in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal of 1991 suggested that Athy’s Town Hall may have been the first of the Palladian style civic buildings to be built in Ireland. The original Town Hall was built in the third or fourth decade of the 18th century. Bishop Pococke on his tour of Ireland in 1752 made reference to the ‘new market house in Athy’, which reference would tend to support the suggested building period.
Rocques map of Athy, prepared for the Duke of Leinster four years after Pococke’s visit to the town, shows a T shaped building which Denis Cogan believes was an open cross vaulted market house on the ground floor, with a Courtroom and assembly rooms overhead.
Nicholas Sheaff, Director of the Irish Architectural Archives, prepared a brief architectural history of the Town Hall in 1984. In his report he stated his belief that the square in front of the Town Hall was in all likelihood laid out at the same time as its construction, with the Town Hall designed as the architectural focus. The style of the building reflected, according to Sheaff, a sophisticated Palladian classicism on the part of the designer suggesting the design came from the offices of Richard Castle or Cassels, the leading Irish Palladian architect of the early 18th century.
The Town Hall has been much altered over the years, with extension both to the front and rear of the original building. The mid 19th century extension to the front of the building was the most important and consisted of rubble masonary walls with tooled limestone stringcourse. It was then that the two stone carved plaques representing Justice intertwined with the symbols of Ireland and England were inserted in the walls of the Town Hall. Cogan believes that this extension was made to improve the existing Courtroom facilities.
I had always believed that the side room on the first floor of the west side of the building where the wooden frieze and canopy with the wall niche was once located indicated the original Courtroom, but Sheaff thought otherwise. He claimed that the canopy was more likely than not installed by the local freemasons who probably held their meetings in that room.
In 1913 further alterations were made to the Town Hall when the earlier extensions to the front of the building were raised by a story, as was the 18th century centre section, making the entire facade three stories high.
The much altered building was again the subject of building work when in 1969 the central part of the ground floor was adopted for use as a fire station. With the building of the new Town Council offices at Rathstewart in 1985 the Town Hall became vacant and fell into a derelict state. Kildare County Council, which had earlier purchased the property from the Duke of Leinster, subsequently restored the building under an Anco Training Scheme which was completed in May 1990.
The oldest element of the Town Hall is the bell which was originally hung from a frame which stood on the roof of the two storey centre section before it was heightened in the mid 18th century. The bell came from the Church of England Parish Church which stood in the rear square behind the Town Hall before it was demolished following the building of St. Michael’s Church at the top of Offaly Street in 1840. The bell is marked with the date 1682.
The Building which in its time has housed a market place, a Courthouse, the Freemasons meeting place, assembly rooms, a ballroom cum theatre, a clothes factory, a fire station, Urban Council offices and various caretakers families is now home to Athy’s public library and the town’s Heritage Centre.